On Nov. 25th, a grand jury in Ferguson voted not to indict a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in the shooting of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, last August in a case that has stirred civil unrest and accusations of racism by white law enforcement officials. The next day, Steve Singer, a teacher in suburban Pittsburgh went to school and realized that he could not carry on as usual but that he had to address what was transpiring in Missouri. This is his account of what happened that day. Singer is a husband, father, blogger and education advocate who teaches eighth-grade Language Arts at a suburban school near Pittsburgh, Pa. He is an administrator with The Badass Teachers Association and serves on the Yinzercation Steering Committee. He gave me permission to republish this post, which first appeared on his blog, at http://www.gadflyonthewallblog.wordpress.com, where this appeared.
Singer teaches the academic, or middle-track students at his school. His classes are made up of roughly 70 percent minority students, and an even higher percentage of his students come from low socioeconomic status households. Not surprisingly, standardized test scores are low, but creativity, passion and critical thinking skills are high. Singer says he believes in every one of his students and would do almost anything to help them succeed.
By Steve Singer
Michael Brown has been dead for more than 100 days, yet he was in my classroom this morning. He stared up at me from the eyes of my 22 mostly black and brown students.
The day after it was announced that Missouri police Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the shooting death of the unarmed black teen, my class was eerily quiet. There was no yelling. No singing or humming or tapping either.
No one played keep away with anyone else’s pencil or laughed about something someone had said or done the night before. No conversation about what so-and-so was wearing or arguments about the football game.
My first period class filed into the room and collapsed into their seats like they’d been up all night. Perhaps they had been. By the time the morning announcements ended and I had finished taking the 8th graders’ attendance, I had come to a decision: I had to address it. There was simply no way to ignore what we were all thinking and feeling. No way to ignore the ghost haunting our hearts and minds.
“May I ask you something?” I said turning to the class.
They just stared.
“Would you mind if we had a moment of silence for Michael Brown?”
I’ve never seen relief on so many faces all at once. It was like I had pulled a splinter from out of 22 pairs of hands with a single tug. The white teacher was going to acknowledge black pain. In here, they wouldn’t have to hide it. They could be themselves.
Some mumbled affirmatives but most had already begun memorializing. There had been silence in their hearts since last night. Silence after the rage.
How else to deal with a reality like ours? Young men of color can be gunned down in the street and our justice system rules it isn’t even worth investigating in a formal trial. The police are free to use deadly force with impunity so long as they tell a grand jury they felt threatened by their unarmed alleged assailant. And if a community can’t control its anger and frustration, it’s the oppressed people’s fault.
These are bitter pills to swallow for adults. How much harder for the young ones just starting out?
So we bowed our heads in silence.
I’ve never heard a sound quit like this emptiness. Footsteps pattered in the hall, an adult’s voice could be heard far away giving directions. But in our room you could almost hear your own heart beating. What a lonely sound, more like a rhythm than any particular note of the scale.
But as we stood there together it was somehow less lonely. All those solitary hearts beating with a single purpose. I made sure to do this in all of my classes today.
The first thing I did was make this same request: “Do you mind if we have a moment of silence for Michael Brown?”
They all agreed. In most classes this became a springboard for discussion. No grades, no lesson plans, just talk.
We talked about who Brown was and what had happened to him. We talked about the grand jury and the evidence it had considered. We talked about what their parents had told them.
And as you might expect, speaking about Brown was like a séance inviting a long line of specters into our classroom – Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Emmett Till, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – fathers, brothers, classmates.
Some groups talked more than others. Some students spoke softly and with an eloquence beyond their years. Many only shook their heads.
One boy asked me, “Why does this keep happening, Mr. Singer?”
It was the question of which I had been most afraid. As a teacher, it’s always uncomfortable to admit the limits of your knowledge. But I tried to be completely honest with him.
“I really don’t know,” I said. “But let’s not forget that question. It’s a really good one.”
Every class was different. In some we spent a long time on it. In others, we moved on more quickly. But in each one, I made sure to look into their eyes – each and every one – before the moment ended.
I didn’t say it aloud, but I wanted them to know something.
We live in an uncertain world. There are people out there who will hate you just because of the color of your skin. They will hate you because of your religion or your parents or whom you love. But in this room, I want you to know you are safe, you are cherished and you are loved.
I hope they understand. For me this is not just an academic concern. It’s personal.
I have devoted my life to those children.
Some of my colleagues say that I’ve gone too far. That what happened to Michael Brown and issues of racism aren’t education issues, they aren’t things that should concern teachers.
If not, I don’t know what is.
Our society segregates public schools into black and white. It defunds the black schools, closes them and funnels the wastrels into privatized for-profit charters while leaving the best facilities and Cadillac funding for the elite and privileged.
And we allow it. Our deformed society leads to deformed citizens and a deformed parody of justice.
My room may be haunted. I teach among the ghosts of oppression. But that’s the thing about phantoms. They demand their due – honesty.
It’s all I have to give.